Ex-NBA Star JR Smith Focused on Degree, Golf at HBCU

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Ex-NBA Star JR Smith Focused on Degree, Golf at HBCU
portrait of Dean Golembeski
by Dean Golembeski
Published on October 25, 2021


After reaching the pinnacle of professional basketball, former NBA star JR Smith is taking a shot at something new, and it's anything but a layup. Smith this fall enrolled as a freshman at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University to pursue a degree in liberal studies and play on the men's golf team.

It's a huge challenge for the 36-year-old who played 16 seasons in the NBA and won two championships before retiring in 2020. But Smith said he has been embraced by the university community.

"Everybody's been really welcoming," Smith told The Undefeated. "So, it's been really great, because at the end of the day, I want to do better at school, as well as on the golf course. And I'm pretty sure a lot of the students around here feel like that."

Smith is already setting an example for other students, particularly adult learners, said Todd Simmons, associate vice chancellor for university relations at N.C. A&T.

"He's having, not surprisingly, all of the same issues that adult learners usually have, and he's surfacing them very candidly, straight-up, honestly on Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms," Simmons told BestColleges. "He's become an adult learner everyman who has had an incredible first act and now is on to this very fascinating second act."

When Smith enrolled at the university, it wasn't immediately certain that he would be cleared to join the golf team. After the NCAA gave its approval at the end of August, Smith told The Undefeated that his goal is to earn All-American status. He has his work cut out for him.

On the second day of his first tournament, Elon University's Phoenix Invitational held Oct. 11-12, Smith stepped on a hornets' nest; he finished 81st out of 84 competitors. In his second tournament, the Grandover Championship, Smith was 97th out of 101 golfers.

The Aggies' final tournament of the fall semester will be the University of Maryland Eastern Shore Collegiate Challenge, which tees off Tuesday.

N.C. A&T golf coach Richard Watkins has said that Smith is not taking away scholarship opportunities from other students. In fact, he is paying his own way in school and tried out for the team, the coach told The Undefeated.

Image Credit: Grant Halverson / Stringer / CGetty Images Sport / Getty Images

Being on a college campus is a first for Smith who joined the NBA right after high school. He had committed to play basketball at the University of North Carolina, but then decided to enter the 2004 NBA draft and was selected by the New Orleans Hornets. Former NBA star Ray Allen and Phoenix Suns point guard Chris Paul both influenced Smith's decision to attend an HBCU (historically Black college or university).

"I think there was a significant amount of advice he got from Chris Paul," Simmons told BestCollegs, noting that Paul taught a marketing course at N.C. A&T in 2019. Paul is a big supporter of HBCUs. His parents attended Winston-Salem State University, where he also enrolled to take classes in 2020.

Smith is tweeting about college life and drawing attention to N.C. A&T, Simmons said. "We've really kept it under wraps and are following [Smith's] lead on how public he wants to be. So far, everything seems to be working out well."

Simmons said Smith's decision to attend an HBCU was not a surprise. He noted that many professional athletes have been touting the academic and athletic experiences at HBCUs. In addition to Chris Paul, Tarik Cohen — a running back for the Chicago Bears and N.C. A&T alum — has also talked up the benefits of HBCUs, Simmons said.

"It's nice to see pros of that caliber making that kind of positive statement about all that you can get here," Simmons said. "Back in the day, we were the athletic outlet for African American collegiate athletes. Then we went through a period where the bigger brands were the heavy draw for a lot of those very strong athletes."

Now the tide is turning because research shows that HBCUs do a better job and are more successful at educating Black students, Simmons said.

"We have better graduation rates. We have better performance rates and that's, in part, because we are good, strong, solid academic institutions," he said. "But it's also because there's a very welcoming and strong environment on our campus for students of color that, frankly, they just don't get in all other places."

Simmons has no doubt that Smith is inspiring other adult learners to return to school and consider HBCUs. N.C. A&T has had eight consecutive years of growth and is the country's largest public HBCU with more than 12,000 students, Simmon said. He added that Smith's enrollment and the corresponding news media coverage will "absolutely" contribute to the university's continued growth. But it may also put more pressure on the college freshman.

"It's not like making a three-point shot. It's a different kind of pressure and he's experiencing that at the same time he's trying to be a successful student," he said. "I think it's ambitious and laudatory that he's doing both."


Feature Image: Grant Halverson / Stringer / Getty Images Sport / Getty Images

HBCUs were established to provide avenues to higher ed for Black Americans. Today, these schools continue to offer critical support and guidance. More than 11,500 golf caddies have received full scholarships to attend top universities nationwide. After a defeat in the Supreme Court, the NCAA is struggling to keep its hold on college sports as student-athletes and Congress demand changes.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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